One day I’ll have talked to a director from every US state. This time around we’re traveling to Cleveland, where Zach Shildwachter has been pumping out terrific, slick short horror films over the past few years. While preparing his latest short EAT IT UP, Zach took some time to talk to Daily Grindhouse about the Cleveland low-budget scene, his production company SICKENING PICTURES, and what he and BJ Colangelo are up to next.
Doug Tilley: Let’s start with talking a bit about your background. I’m guessing you were a big VHS fiend as a kid. Were you big into horror? Or was that something you came to a bit later?
Zach Shildwachter: Growing up my folks were pretty strict with what I was allowed to watch, so a lot of horror film staples I’m still discovering well into my 30s.
Many of those films you’d scream out loud with, “How have you not seen that??”. I was a big fan of Elvira, USA’s UP ALL NIGHT with my sweetheart Rhonda Shear, as well as Commander USA and his Groovie Movies. Being from Cleveland, we had Big Chuck and Lil Jon as local tv hosts with John Lanigan, as well, showing old monster movies and the like. I did have a local Mom & Pop Video Shop that I loved, called Video Cinema, which is long gone now. My favorite films were always the monster movies, everything from GODZILLA to MONSTER IN THE CLOSET. My dad made sure I saw my fair share of chop socky Kung Fu flicks too. We definitely had our fair share of Beta Max and VHS compilation tapes, many I still own. My parents always hated my taste in movies – they pretty much still do. It’s only grown stronger in its love for schlockiness.
Doug Tilley: Tell me about the low-budget and short film scene in Cleveland right now. Is there a lot of support among filmmakers, or do you mostly stick to your own thing?
Zach Shildwachter: In Cleveland there’s a talented group of actors, ranging from theater to film to music videos to commercial work. They all tend to jump around and are pretty tight knit. Crew-wise, folks tend to wear a lot of different hats, meaning you’ll find a boom operator that might also be a gaffer. You really have to ask around.
The Indie Scene has some talented folks like Keith Ten Eyck, and Jon Nix & Jamie Overstreet and all their team behind Turnstyle Films. You have Dustin Mills out of Toledo and Henrique Couto out of Dayton making some interesting and dynamic cinema. They’ve all been very supportive and will lend advice or a voice to your cause. You sometimes cross paths and sometimes you don’t.
The scene is really what you make it. You have this blank canvas to convince people to play with you and make some weird, fun stuff sometimes. It can be difficult finding people to connect with, that’s why some folks tend to stick with who they know based on the type of stuff they like to make. Some would say that maybe due to lack of budget or whatever, but in my opinion people want to work on films that will actually be released and available to share. I guess that’s the same everywhere, it only gets better if you can turn a profit at the same time.
The Cleveland Film Commission is a thing but in my experience unless you have CAPTAIN AMERICA 2 money, you can think your way around and through whatever you want to shoot. I’ve found that being able to share my previous work usually dictates what access and ease I have to move about with whatever project I’m trying to get going at the time.
Locals like supporting locals. You’d be surprised what you can get away with, especially when you don’t budget in for NO.
Doug Tilley: You’ve worked as a production assistant, producer and assistant director on other’s projects. What made you want to transition to directing? Was there some frustration in having to fulfill someone else’s vision?
Zach Shildwachter: I worked in NYC for almost 10 years on low budget indie films, studio projects, network television, commercials, industrials, music videos and that was my film school. My first movie gig ever was working on UNHOLY with Adrienne Barbeau fresh off of HBO’s CARNIVALE and Nicolas Brendon who was trying to settle into something after BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. I think I found that gig on Craigslist. I worked outside, unpaid for hours on end, but I learned a lot, made some friends and connections and moved up the ladder. I was willing to learn and eager to please. I made mistakes, learned from them and people recognized that. It lead to more and more work and more responsibility with the skill-sets to learn.
I always approached a project from one of two standpoints; either it was working like a well oiled machine from the top down and I copied what worked or it was a disaster that hemorrhaged time & money and learned all the things to avoid. It’s a great thing to learn on someone else’s dime before you make your own movies. Ultimately, I always wanted to make my own movies and found that I was chasing a paycheck and not my dream. I was always trying to write my ideas into scripts, but it wasn’t until I moved back to Ohio that I finally decided to pursue that interest of directing.
Doug Tilley: Speaking of vision, you were part of The Studio on Mars for a couple of years and helmed a number of projects for that production company. What attracted you to it initially, and what made you want to start your own production company over the last year?
Zach Shildwachter: Initially when I moved back to Ohio an old college friend asked me to help with his short film. Given my experience I was able to jump in and really help make that ambitious project happen from doing the fx makeup to even filming the ending. It was a fun partnership that gained traction with local actors enjoying working with us and wanting to do more and more projects with us. We did music videos, our own shorts, and even started farming out our talents to help assist other filmmakers. Unfortunately a set of creative differences brought that partnership to an end.
I love making movies, and helping people make movies. It’s brings a sense of joy & accomplishment that I hope others can experience. I knew I wasn’t gonna stop making movies or trying to entertain folks so I regrouped, refocused, and redirected my energy into my current path as a storyteller.
Doug Tilley: What’s the ethos behind SICKENING PICTURES? Are the projects all likely to be helmed by yourself and BJ Colangelo, or do you see that possibly expanding in the future?
Zach Shildwachter: Sickening Pictures is meant to tell unique stories in a unique voice. BJ Colangelo and I decided that after our efforts with our short film SCUM that this was something we wanted to continue, in any means that we could individually and collectively make it grow.
BJ and I love bending genres and pushing the DIY spirit that brought us together. You don’t need a big budget to tell a good story and entertain people without excuses. We are currently expanding our presence online with more content and working on developing more of own projects along with working with other aspiring filmmakers. We definitely enjoy sharing our talents, in front of and behind the camera.
Doug Tilley: Let’s touch briefly on some of the shorts released by SICKENING PICTURES so far. SCUM follows a spree killer (played by Josh Miller) as he goes on a violent rampage – with the soundtrack notably marked by quotes from real serial killers. How did the idea for this project develop? What made Josh the right choice to play “The Figure”?
Zach Shildwachter: Josh Miller had initially approached me with the idea for SCUM that featured a series of brutal killings. What really struck me was he had done a proof-of-concept photo shoot that addressed the look he wanted his story to have. It was very saturated with colors and creepy atmosphere, like crime scene polaroids. I decided to script a story with all of that as the backdrop. I wanted to explore what would drive a person to kill, and then to kill again and again. How could you sympathize with a killer, let alone understand them?
In doing research I decided to let the killer speak for themselves from these jailhouse interviews and deathrow confessions. I cobbled quotes together from a pantheon of killers and formed a narrative that reflected SCUM‘s tone. Josh was always meant to portray the Figure, but ultimately I wanted to make him more of an everyman, more relatable within our pseudo-period piece. His biggest challenge was recording all the voiceover narration before we shot a single frame. His body language would have to convey it all and I think that took a lot of trust to agree to. A big element that shaped the production was BJ being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which usually boasts a 4% survival rate. We shot SCUM on a Saturday & Sunday and that Monday she was under the knife herself.
Doug Tilley: ABORT turns a serious topic on its ear with a mid-short twist, and was written and co-directed by BJ. How did the direction work on that project, and were there any difficulties with the two of you working so closely together?
Zach Shildwachter: BJ has a tremendous knack for storytelling and is an accomplished writer in her own right. She’s been published in academia from her own blog, to the numerous websites she writes for and is my go-to source for how I formulate a lot of my ideas. She always has a unique way of approaching a viewpoint that often is overlooked. ABORT was actually our entry into the Project Greenlight competition.
It’s odd that some people watch it and find the dark humor while others consider it a disturbing drama. It’s basically our version of a red-head joke. BJ wrote a great script that we knew we could shoot in an afternoon with no money. We did have to wait out a tornado that touched down while filming but I think it was definitely worth it. BJ works great with kids and helped keep things moving on set. We had an interesting dynamic working together that continues to grow. She’s a classically trained actress that holds the story & what’s on screen as gospel and I’m a make-the-day-at-any-costs kinda guy from behind the scenes, so it’s interesting to see those two sides collide at times. This was our second entry co-directing together after submitting an “M is for…” entry to the ABCs OF DEATH 2 contest.
Doug Tilley: SEVEN MINUTES is your most recent project, and is heavily reliant on the interplay between a number of different actors. How did you find the cast for the short, and were there any concerns that they might not be able to nail the tonal shift that punctuates its ending?
Zach Shildwachter: SEVEN MINUTES was definitely a challenge from beginning to end. Coming out of recovery for her surgery, BJ is less than three months since her operation, and actually had drainage tubes removed two days prior to filming. Homegirl is a trooper. Her script was what I wanted to be as my twisted romantic comedy. It had all the influence of NEAR DARK and THE LOST BOYS, but with our signature flair.
Phillia who plays Gwen I had worked with previously on a Studio On Mars project where I incidentally met Josh too. She saw SCUM and cornered me at the screening asking why I didn’t cast her for that short. BJ and I knew we had to make something with her next. Amanda who plays Riley is a theater friend of BJ’s who was a lot of fun to work with and deserves more work on camera. Dan who plays Leo is an extraordinary musician and a stellar sound guy. He’s the one that did all the sound on SCUM and his band Moon Rocks is who performs that title track. I’m really happy to have him seen in front of the camera too. At this point I just love abusing Josh on screen and will probably do so until he wises up. He’s a very enthusiastic actor and committed too.
The biggest challenge was getting all these dynamic personalities to somewhat travel along the same path to get to the ending. It’s a testament to their abilities to jive so well together, especially with shooting much of that film in 90+ degree weather. It was meant to feel like a real night out with friends and I feel they convey that through and through.
Doug Tilley: What’s coming up next for SICKENING PICTURES? Do you expect to stick to short films for the forseeable future, or are you anticipating eventually tackling a full-length project?
Zach Shildwachter: Right now we have another short film being finished in the edit titled EAT IT UP. It’s gross-out comedy that I hope to submit to festivals this Spring. Right now we’re working on developing a few more shorts, and a feature as well. There’s many contingencies; budget, money, capital, and funding.
Doug Tilley: For those curious about SICKENING PICTURES and/or wanting to follow your work – as well as BJ’s – online, what’s the best way to do so?
Zach Shildwachter: You can find our work online at Vimeo.com/ZachForZombies as of right now. All of our work so far is free for all to enjoy, some with your parent’s permission though. Please bug us on Twitter — @ZachForZombies and @BJColangelo. And be sure to read BJ’s work at DayOfTheWoman.com.
Doug Tilley: Anything else to plug?
Zach Shildwachter: If anyone ever has questions, thoughts, or opinions for me, reach out — I reach back. I love meeting and working with new people to tell new stories.
Shout out to Wes Allen and Matt Goodfriend!
Doug Tilley: Finally, what advice would you have for a young or inexperienced director looking to tackle their first project?
ZS: You’ll always be your biggest critic so get out there and make something to criticize. Dreams, ambition, good intentions – all that doesn’t mean shit unless you get out there and make your own movies & mistakes and are then smart enough to learn from both. Don’t be afraid to fail and take chances. Be bold, be unique. You don’t need money to be entertaining. Tell the stories you feel need to be heard. Making movies should always be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
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